Poker strategy is so complex that in many ways it helps to be a jack of all trades, with a practical, working knowledge and awareness of a comprehensive set of plays and tactics. Poker can also be a formulaic game, and this tends to be the case more with Cash games than tournaments. This is because, with the blinds not increasing as they do in a tournament setting, this fundamental feature remains at a constant. Consequently, much of the overall gameplan revolves around the same fixed blind structure. Cash game specialists, therefore, not only get used to certain types of situations cropping up time and again, but also in the way that they deal with them. Building up a tried and tested set of strategies and weapons that can be employed in various forms session after session can be a profitable venture. But many would say it lacks adventure – hence the massive popularity of online poker tournaments.

But with the excitement factor ratcheted up a few notches by virtue of ever-increasing Blinds comes a need for much more flexibility. Tournaments, in contrast to Cash games, present us with a different animal entirely because, as the blinds increase, so the value of the chips and stacks continues to change, and the heightened pace and urgency of the game is such that this or that approach that might have worked well during the early stages can be rendered pretty ineffectual as the field starts to dwindle.

It’s fair to say that, unlike Cash games, tournaments require us to be considerably more adaptable. It’s simply not possible to adopt a one-size-fits-all type approach when playing tournaments. The nature of the ongoing struggle is evolving along with the greater impact over time of the Blinds (and Antes!) and, meanwhile, the field undergoes changes in numbers. And even these are not necessarily constant, with late registration periods affording players a lot of flexibility – initial numbers can increase rapidly during the early phase, and as the pace goes up a gear or two players start to be eliminated more frequently. Add to this the rebuy element and the growing trend of entering into battle at the last possible opportunity, right at the end of the rebuy period, and it can be difficult to know where we stand in the great scheme of things. Should we be looking to keep apace with the average stack size by loosening up a bit in order to ‘catch up’ and keep our head above water, or is okay to patiently sit tight (and play tighter) and more carefully pick our spots? Such a thought is a typical poker conundrum, and it can come down to simply finding a course of action with which we feel most comfortable. But the crux of the matter is that we must be prepared to switch gears when circumstances suggest – or demand – a change of tack.

Not only tournament dynamics keep changing – so does the dynamic at our table, too. For example, a hitherto solid player who has built a formidable stack through well-timed aggression and selectively prudent moves could suddenly go on tilt after being on the wring side of a massive all-in duel. Meanwhile, a quiet player to our left who’s kept his gunpowder dry for an hour might wake up and start playing like a maniac. It’s imperative that we constantly monitor what our opponents are doing and not succumb to distraction when not involved in a hand. Just one insightful observation when a player starts acting differently or the flavour of the game at the table has undergone a shift could prove decisive. Equally important could be our making changes to our own play. The more we notice and the more we adapt when others are still oblivious to changing dynamics, the greater our chance of exploiting any changes.

Some players tighten up as the bubble approaches, so we can target them. Others will up their aggression and try to bully the table in their own bid to profit from the changes they notice. Stealing is perhaps one of the main bonuses brought about by the often changing landscape. An ironic mistake is when someone who has been used to playing in a certain way for a long time is suddenly uprooted and moved to a different table with a whole new bunch of opponents, yet fails to take advantage of nobody having a clue as to their style and continuing in the same way that wasn’t successful the first time around. This happens surprisingly often, and is indicative of players’ lack of flexibility and their failing to understand tournament dynamics and their significance and implications.

Have fun at the tables, and don’t forget to adjust to – and exploit – tournament dynamics!

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About the Author


AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “Adjusting to Changing Tournament Dynamics” was made by AngusD on September 30, 2021